Proteas vs Australia

2008-12-05 00:00

The South African and Australian teams are well matched.

Indeed they have become almost mirror images. Shane Warne’s withdrawal to the poker table means that both sides rely on strong batting and incisive pace bowling. Admittedly, the orthodox spinners belatedly chosen by the Australians in the last few weeks did take a stack of wickets, but as a rule they are about as menacing as a milk tart. Accordingly, the result of the series will depend on form as opposed to class.

Several interesting head-to-head comparisons will take place in the series, and as challengers and visitors South Africa need to win most of them.

Graeme Smith and Matthew Hayden will give the batting its initial impact. In the past Hayden has been the more powerful force, but it might be different this time. The Queenslander has spent the last few months recovering from injury and writing cookbooks, an activity suggesting that, like King Kong, he is gentler than he seems.

As much was confirmed from the news that in his younger days he had taken piano lessons (alas few of his teachers survived the first week). But runs have been as elusive as clean water in Harare. Smith returns down under as a more mature man whose bat will, on this occasion, be wider than his mouth. He is an exceptional batsman capable of collaring a new ball attack and playing long innings. As Gautam Gambhir showed in India, a left-hander at the top of the order can be a priceless asset.

Neil McKenzie (SA) and Simon Katich, two late developers trapped for an eternity in their own seriousness, will provide tenacious support. At first wicket down, Ricky Ponting is expected to outshine Hashim Amla, a batsman supposedly vulnerable to snorting deliveries. Ponting was in prime form in Adelaide, but Amla is alert, devoted and brave and might prove harder to subdue than forecast.

And the next duel is even more significant. Michael Hussey and Jacques Kallis occupy the second drop positions. Outstanding in 2007, both batsmen have recently been searching for their games.

Hussey has resembled a lady with a new perm looking for an umbrella in a storm. Although Kallis’s better half was put out last time the matter was raised (though it was a great compliment to her cooking), it’d be possible to observe that Kallis is looking a trifle well fed. Both men are expert practitioners. South Africa needs their man to rally.

Despite their styles being as far apart as a Mercedes and a Volkswagen, Michael Clarke and Ashwell Prince have been productive at third drop. Clarke has added solidity to his dash and Prince is about as easy to remove as a broken toenail. The Australian always seemed destined for mighty deeds, but the rugged SA left-hander has far surpassed expectations. His rise reminds us that assembly matters as much as design.

Clearly the comparison between Andrew Symonds and AB de Villiers will be crucial to the outcome. Both No. 6s have the capacity to change the course of an innings in an hour, with power and panache respectively, and both field brilliantly. Since his return Symonds has spent more time in hot water than out and sceptics ponder upon his state of mind. None of the Australian elders has recovered properly from the SCG Test match. De Villiers is the joker in an otherwise dutiful pack. At this stage the younger man looks the better prospect.

Mark Boucher, the scarred counter-puncher, and Brad Haddin, the seasoned optimist, ought to have a good tussle, while the spinners will be hoping to play a part once the teams have crossed the Nullabor. Australia have a slight edge in both departments, but it’s a close-run thing.

The form of the pacemen will be critical. Both sets have been taking wickets in the last few weeks, but the resistance has been threadbare.

On paper, South Africa has a more alarming collection, but the touring seamers are inconsistent.

Dale Steyn has pace, movement and desire but, as with hip-hop, the rhythm section tends to be neglected. Morne Morkel is as tall as a telegraph pole and hits the pitch hard enough to pound ribcages, but needs to reinvent himself every day. Makhaya Ntini is a fading champion.

Contrastingly, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson were superb in Adelaide while Shane Watson took wickets for his state. Stuart Clarke needs scalps to protect his position on home pitches.

In short, the sides have much in common. If Smith and Steyn succeed, the second-ranked visitors can take the spoils. If not, the hosts might have the edge, at any rate till battle resumes on African soil.

•Peter Roebuck, who is based in the KZN midlands, is in Australia and will cover the South African-Australian series for Weekend Witness and The Witness.

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